Director: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein
Screenplay: Mark Perez
Starring: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Michael C. Hall, Kyle Chandler
Runtime: 100 Minutes
The alarm bells for Game Night can be heard ringing from miles away. From its marketing campaign selling the film on the outrage of the premise, brought to us from the co-creators of Horrible Bosses 2, people would have every right to expect another loud and brass mainstream comedy that dapples in the action and crime genres to up the stakes of its middle-class suburban characters getting “hilariously” entangled in a situation they aren’t prepared to handle.
What a surprise then that not only is Game Night a surprisingly funny and competently made mashup, but one that never relies on tired gags centred around improvised routines or crude sex jokes. In fact, of the many pleasures to be had in the film the fact that it actually has a heart and reverence for its characters isn’t something that’s often appreciated or seen in the often-cynical areas of dark comedy.
Its premise is an oddly inspired one; following a group of friends whose game night turns into a real-life mystery when their lucrative host conceives of an immersive dinner evening where the guests won't be able to tell what is real and what isn’t – only to have real bad guys assault and kidnap host Brooks (the always reliable Kyle Chandler) with the guests none the wiser and playing along as if its still a game, unaware of the very real danger they’re getting themselves deeper into.
Obviously not all is as it seems as twists and turns conspire to keep the plot moving across its surprisingly (and refreshingly) short runtime, but the joy comes from the situation itself which leads to some terrifically silly sequences wherein the characters playoff events in the name of friendly competition but come across as terrifyingly ballsy to the real criminals they’re casually threatening the lives of for clues and directions.
Also refreshing is the affinity it has for the central couple, competitive gamers Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams). Their conflict concerning their difficulty to conceive and Max’s possible unwillingness to have kids is dealt through intentionally strained metaphors, but their chemistry is very sweet and believable even in the absurd later stages.
Same goes for Billy Magnussen as Ryan, a dumb but likeable ladies man who in an effort to win at least one game is dating one of his intelligent co-workers Sarah (Sharon Horgan) who tags along for the ride. Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury are great as squabbling couple Kevin and Michelle, and their recurring joke involving Michelle sleeping with an unnamed celebrity gets the funniest payoff.
But its Jesse Plemons as weird divorced neighbour and cop Gary Kingsbury who more or less steals the entire film. Plemons is a genuine acting talent at playing emotionally unstable or detached weirdos with an oddly boyish look, and now it looks like we can add comedy to the increasing lists of roles he can play. He plays every scene and frame for maximum awkward potential without it feeling adlibbed or unstructured with a droll manner to his delivery and an inelegant and stiff posture of someone desperately in need of human contact but unable to read the most basic social cues.
Game Night is an unexpected treat and probably the funniest Hollywood comedy of 2018 so far. The direction is well-done with a good eye for visual gags through framing and editing, the performances are committed and well-balanced, and even the Tangerine Dream tinged score by Cliff Martinez is better than you’d expect for something of this standard.